John Muir said, “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.” Still true over a century later, I’ve turned to this phrase often during hard times and more often during 2020, which turned out to be one of the most challenging, strange years ever in my relatively short time here on Earth. Sometimes this year I couldn’t simply run to the nearest forest trail—what with moving to snowy Nova Scotia and self-isolating for weeks. So I read fiction and think I hit a record number of books this year. I realized that what might help us cope during traumatic times is some sort of continuity, and we haven’t lost that in storytelling. As a bonus, many stories take us into the mountains and refresh our senses. A burgeoning literary field of ecologically oriented fiction connects us with our natural world, reminding us how humans are part of ecosystems. These stories are steeped in weird, contemporary, cultural, mythological, fantastical, science-based, and other realms, but they share a common connection: they reach our hearts and inspire us to think and act more strongly about issues such as climate change, species extinction, natural resource extraction, dwindling biodiversity, and other changes that aren’t healthy for life on Earth. Authors have the unique ability to weave stories about loss and despair with characters who light candles in the darkness, which gives us courage and fearlessness. It also helps for us to read stories from around the world to understand how others are dealing with similar issues, often experiencing even greater impacts and losses than us.
In the spirit of the holiday season, I’d like to share a few gift ideas to help your loved ones get out of the 2020 funk and into something meaningful. In these novels, you’ll find people like us—in a weird world—figuring how to survive, how to get back to the mountains, and what it means to be human.
For readers who enjoy a bit of mystery and weird fiction: Fauna by Christiane Vadnais. Set somewhere in the cold North, this slim, elegant, and surprising volume of connected short stories follows characters around the isolated, moody village of the cold, forested Shivering Heights, where strange and futuristic biological life forms interact. Among the weirdest of these life forms are humans, though readers will discover others. Vadnais’s writing is raw, erotic, and dream-like. She’ll take you deep into the foggy, haunted woods and tantalize you to the core.
For those who like epic journeys that include a little of everything—love and romance, family ties, music, history: Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad. Mostly set in Thailand, but also roaming other areas in the world, such as New England, southern California, and Japan, a large cast of characters converge throughout time in Bangkok in a brilliant story that presents a microcosm of history and future, including contemporary revelations about how climate change transforms place. Told through interconnected vignettes, with a vibrant, watery city at its core, this is one of my favorite novels of all time.
For friends and family interested in culture and mythology: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okarofor. It seems that Africanfuturism is wonderfully holistic in terms of combining story with a deep cultural and ecological experience, and Okarofor’s Who Fears Death is a good example. The novel, which forever opened my mind, follows a Sudanese girl, Onyesonwu, from her conception (a child of rape) to adulthood. Set in a post-apocalyptic, sub-Saharan desert, Onye’s story relies on African myths, including animals, landscape, and magic, as she leads her people out of genocide and into a more hopeful future.
For those who appreciate dark humor: The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun. The story starts in South Korea, where a young woman named Yona is sexually abused at her dark tourism job and then is sent to a job appointment on an island, Mui, in Vietnam. Her company, Jungle, offers sightseeing for rich tourists whose idea of vacationing includes paying top dollar to view ecological catastrophes. It’s a unique direction in ecofiction that satirizes our pathological desires to eat popcorn while viewing disaster from a safe distance—and the story parodies this weird behavior while also exploring the dark side of capitalism.
For readers who want to try something different: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. Set in Argentina, and inspired by local environmental problems, the story takes place in a poisoned landscape in which sickness and death results from a contaminated stream. The novel is comprised of a long conversation between a boy and a woman. The strange but addictive dialog is like a fever dream but also parallels reality in that it portends our migration and morphism into a greenhouse world.
For sci-fi and tech fans: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. Not set on a current map, we travel to a futuristic, biotech world. Borne follows a young woman, Rachel, living with her boyfriend in a run-down place built by scavenged parts. The world is scary. There’s a witch. There’s a huge, flying bear named Mord. On her scavenging adventures, Rachel comes across a little sea anemone type creature, Borne, and thus begins a heartwarming mother-child relationship as she raises it and becomes in awe of the way it learns and grows. VanderMeer’s The Strange Bird and Dead Astronauts, which exist in the same universe as Borne, are both equally exciting reads.
For the young adult who appreciates fantasy: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger. Listed by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 fantasy novels of all time, this Indigenous speculative fiction takes place in a weird version of America and is important, as it’s told with the rich storytelling of a Lipan-Apache world view. Elatsoe (nicknamed Ellie) is an asexual teenager who has the ability to awaken dead animals, a skill passed down to her. She finds herself in a paradox when her cousin dies and then uses her people’s customs and beliefs to try to solve a mystery in a world where land, resources, family, and friends are important and need to be preserved.
For your gift recipients interested in genetic engineering and climate change: Ghost Species by James Bradley. Taking place in Tasmania, this novel has a scientist named Kate working with a team to re-engineer the planet in order to mitigate climate change. She uses genetics to bring back a Neanderthal named Eve, but then must consider the consequences of releasing her from the laboratory. Ghost Species is full of love for the natural world and re-imagines who we are during past and present extinction events.
For those who love animals and life journeys: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. I’m so happy that this important novel is being adapted to film, with Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch starring. Like they say, read the book first! In the story, Franny Stone travels to Greenland to follow Arctic terns on their final migration to Antarctica, and in the meantime tries to come to terms with her personal haunted history. The layers in this story peel back and reveal loss and humility and, through the beauty and hope of the natural world, also uncover courage.
For the middle-grade children on your list: Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari. Sita is a prolific children’s book author, often writing about experiences close to family as well as the natural world, in settings such as India and England. Sita told me that Where the River Runs Gold was inspired by Greek mythology. In it, siblings Shifa and Themba live in crowded quarters in the poor part of the city and work on a farm to pollinate crops since all the bees have vanished. The two finally break free and embark on an adventure that just might inspire us all to rise above.
Mary, who runs Dragonfly.eco, lives near Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her partner and two cats. She writes fiction under the pen name Clara Hume and is the author of Back to the Garden (Moon Willow Press, 2014) and Bird Song: A Novella (Dragonfly Pub, 2020). She was a contributing author to Wild Tales from the River (Stormbird Press, 2018). She has written for Artists and Climate Change, ClimateCultures, Free Word Centre, SFFWorld, and Fjord's Review. Her articles have been translated at Chinese Science Writers Association and Zest Letteratura Sostenibile.